Okeechobee fire watch tower helps spot wildfires - Fox29 WFLX TV, West Palm Beach, FL-news & weather

Okeechobee fire watch tower helps spot wildfires

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In the more populated regions of our viewing area, people and pilots spot the wildfires and call 911, but in Okeechobee County and neighboring counties, firefighters still watch for brush fires on a fire watch tower.

The view from up top is breathtaking, and so is the climb nearly 100-feet high.

"It takes quite a bit. It's a breathtaker when you have to come up here," said Ranger Robert Smith, Florida Forest Service in Okeechobee.

For 50 years, the Okeechobee County fire watch tower has served as a lookout for firefighters spotting brush fires.

"Looking for smoke columns, depending on how dark they are, what color," said Ranger Smith.

It's 81 steps and 9 flights of stairs to the top of the fire watch tower. Up top firefighters have a viewpoint reaching 30 miles. Using a fire finder they can pinpoint exactly where a fire is.

In severe drought, Ranger Smith spends up to 8 hours in the tower.

"It's been crazy, numerous calls during the day, big fires, 100 plus acres," added Smith. "Usually happy hour begins at 2 o'clock."

Smith said that's when the sparks start. His job is to find the fire, figure out how involved it is.

"Once it turns black, it's eating," added Smith.

From the tower he can map out how crews can get there, what's in the way, and where the wind could take the fire. Eyes on the tower get firefighters out to the flames quickly.

"It's about 3 to 5 minutes as soon as we can call it in," said Ranger Smith.

For Smith, spotting those smoke columns quickly means he can help real people affected.

"To help them, whether it's saving their property, their animals, their lives."

Fire watch towers are still being used in Glades and Highlands counties too, but there's a Florida Forest Service pilot who also has a key role in getting firefighters acres deep into the flames safely.

In the last two months Sanne Esque has logged a lot of flight time.

"I love being there. They like it when I'm there. They feel safer cause I'm watching them," said Esque, a fixed wing pilot for the Florida Forest Service Okeechobee District.

Her position is in the sky above the plumes of wildfire smoke.

"I try not to go through the smoke cause I'll be actually lifted out of my seat some times," said Esque.

Her job is to be the eyes of the Florida Forest Service firefighters acres deep into a fire.

"They don't have to guess where is this ditch? Is there a house in those woods I can't see? Is there a propane tank?" added Esque. "I can get them there so much faster. I can see the whole picture."

With Okeechobee County in severe drought, Esque takes off every day around 2 p.m. when the fires start to flare up. She flies out west to the Glades and Highlands counties and up north to Indian River, St. Lucie, and Martin counties. If she sees smoke, she calls it in. Her instructions get firefighters there safely and hopefully save homes.

"To know that you were part of that whole process of saving somebody's home, that they have worked for their whole life, their pets," added Esque.

Esque said she's seen fires burn completely around homes that took proper fire safety measures. The Florida Forest Service is pushing for more communities to become 'fire wise.'

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